This Love Affair with Boston: It’s Complicated
Lydia McOscar of the Brookline Booksmith, a booklover's paradise that has called Brookline home since the 1950s, teamed up with Grub to curate a series of personal essays from debut authors connected to our fair city of Boston. In this edition, Katie Bayerl, author of A Psalm for Lost Girls, writes about her turbulent relationship with Boston and the beginning of her writing journey. Make sure you come to Katie's reading at Brookline Booksmith this Thursday, April 13th at 7pm!
In my 20s I believed that if I tried hard enough, I’d find the perfect job, the perfect home, the life I was meant to live. I spent a lot of time dreaming about leaving Boston.
I considered Miami, San Diego, San Juan. At one point, breaking pattern, Toronto made the list. I’d heard the Canadian metropolis was a global utopia, filled with polite socialists and upward-bound immigrants. So, I flew west to test things out. What I found was an abundance of concrete, so much grey. The big-city blandness left me empty, unsatisfied.
I returned to Boston, contrite.
You see, I didn’t want to betray my city. Despite appearances, I loved Boston. I loved its many-hued Victorians and triple-deckers, the charm of cobblestones and brick, the pulse of neighborhood festivals punctuating summer months. I looked forward to Jamaica Plain’s Wake up the Earth festival as my own annual rebirth, a moment when my winter-shriveled heart could unfurl and rediscover joy.
Boston, seen through summery lenses, had a lot going for it. I lapped up the exchange of language and culture that was part of my daily life. I gave thanks for its conveniences: that I could step out of my apartment and go for a run, hop on the T, or meet a friend for Vietnamese noodles, Scottish ale, or a savory plate of mofongo dominicano.
I loved the sounds of Boston’s people—accents far more varied and nuanced than Hollywood could ever capture. The quick beats, swallowed consonants, vowels serving as a sort of cultural and regional GPS. A North Shore native, my own flabby Rs had been shamed into shape in prep school. Now, each time I landed at Logan, those familiar sounds greeted me like a pair of old slippers.
But for every asset, Boston had a failing to match: a subway system that connects point A to point Z but requires two trains and a bus to get from C to E; a perpetually confusing blend of prudishness and liberal values; neighborhoods so segregated and disparities so deep that it’s probably more accurate to think of Boston as two cities rather than one.
During my first years as a Boston resident, my rage boiled over often. I was angry on behalf my teenage mentee who’d been born in Hyde Square and spent her childhood in the neighborhood’s public schools, who was shuffled into special education when English didn’t flow from her lips on schedule. She and I built a relationship in Spanish, and I got to see how quick her mind was, how persistent she was despite the obstacles adults threw in her path. I was angry at her teachers for giving up so quickly instead of doing their jobs and providing her with the rich language experience she deserved. Once I became a teacher myself, I wanted to strangle the whole school district for its callousness and the teachers’ union for its empty politicizing. I really hated the city in those years.
I especially resented the revered, unbeatable mayor who seemed more bent on cutting ribbons than letting the public see what was really happening to our kids. I hated that Back Bay could be so blind to the needs of Dorchester and Roxbury, that Chinatown was disappearing, that even the hipsters were fleeing Stony Brook, leaving baby carriages and overpriced cheese in their wake. I hated that I was complicit in this thing called gentrification that had no end in sight.
Also, snow. Ugh.
Sometimes, it went deeper than anger. Sometimes, Boston was a source of shame. When I traveled outside the city, I watched friends’ faces (especially brown friends’ faces) close up with suspicion when I mentioned where I was from. I knew what outsiders saw: coarse-mouthed sports fans, blue-blooded snobbery, rocks thrown at school buses. I wanted to tell them, It’s not like that! There’s more to the story! We’re not all like Marky Mark! But the words got tangled in my throat.
Because, here’s the thing: on the T, after a Red Sox game, Boston looked exactly like its big screen caricature. On weekdays, in Post Office Square, it was nothing but smug suits and clueless khakis as far as the eye could see. And God, the Real Housewives of Brookline with their shopping carts taking up the whole damn aisle! Don’t get me started on Boston’s drivers…
My shame made me brittle, defensive. And super judgmental. I wondered how much more open-minded I’d be if I lived in Oakland or Los Angeles.
Inevitably, though, April returned like a terrible boyfriend, melting snow mounds and making promises of better times to come. I renewed my lease for another year, and another. One spring, high on vitamin D, I bought a condo, twining my fate deeper to this city’s.
My sunny, third-story perch was all cheer and charm, everything I thought I wanted at the time, but it wasn’t enough to kill my old friend angst. Two months into my mortgage, doubt loomed heavy: Was I doing this right? Life?
I became obsessed with Jamaica Plain’s West Coast doppelgänger, Echo Park. From 2,500 miles away, it appeared to have all of the assets, none of the baggage. There were a bunch of trips to LA that year. In the years that followed, I spent a little too much time thinking about and traveling to Chicago and Austin.
And then, as I prepared for one Austin-bound flight, a pair of young men took out their rage on a crowded sidewalk in Copley Square. The bombs they detonated had rippling effects. Some immediate, devastating. Others more diffuse and surprising. Like many Bostonians, I became suddenly, fiercely protective of my home. And when the younger brother’s face appeared on the screen, big brown eyes and skin that hardly knew a razor, another confusing shift happened. I saw a face that could have so easily fit in my classroom. I read in young Tsarnaev’s sparse story the experiences of so many local youth with cause to be bitter. He had made a terrible choice, caused permanent harm to so many, but he was one of us too, wasn’t he? A part of our story?
I didn’t know what to do with this contradiction, and when the inevitable slogan rose up—Boston Strong—it fell on my ears like a drunken slur, a code no harder to crack than Deo vindice or America First. Cue vomit reflex and angry tears. I couldn’t be a part of this—this us versus them tribalism. God, I hated the Red Sox! It was sports culture that caused us to think this way, wasn’t it? Why did everything in this city have to be about teams?
My shame in this city had never been deeper, but I also didn’t know how to leave.
You see, at some point, my roots had grown too deep, my closets too full of crap. Each time I thought of leaving, I panicked at the prospect of what moving would require, at all of the small, not insignificant, losses it would bring. I had a doctor I trusted, a dry cleaner who remembered where the spots were, a hairdresser who accepted that neither of us would ever know what I wanted and that when I said “red” I probably meant “brown.” My parents were getting older, and the idea of leaving Massachusetts seemed increasingly unrealistic, not to mention selfish. How would I even begin to extricate myself from three (creeping on four) decades of relationships? From a mechanic who knows I’ll never get on top of car maintenance and doesn’t judge?
When Jamaica Plain finally got decent tacos, I knew the fight was over. The arrogance of my 20s had faded, the delusion that happiness was simple, a switch I could turn on or off at will… if I could just find the right combination of buttons. I’d drunk too much of my generation’s Kool-Aid in those early years, believed that if I made all the right choices, leaned the fuck in, and did a little yoga to work off the stress, I could have it all. Now the buzz had worn off and I saw a different, more complicated truth.
I had many wonderful things: deep, decades-long friendships, my own little nest in an imperfect gem of a neighborhood, a life filled to the brim with stories and young people and art. Others desirables—like financial freedom, dates with attractive footwear, and winter-proof mental health—were more elusive. But I couldn’t blame everything on Boston, could I?
Something else had happened in that time too. Six years into my relationship with Boston I began pursuing a career as a writer. I worked on one thorny novel, then another, and then spent the next six years writing a story in which a girl learns to accept herself and her community despite their abundant flaws. Haha. Yes. Go ahead and laugh. I’m not kidding. The best part? It took all of those years to realize I was writing a novel-length letter to myself. (Writing is cheaper than therapy, it turns out, but not nearly as efficient.)
Somewhere along the way, I began letting go of the idea of perfection, or of satisfaction as a binary—you have it/you don’t—thing. As I settled into my stealthily aging skin, I realized the obvious: no person, no place has it all.
In front of me lay a city, imperfect. Beautiful in some ways, ugly in others. A fixer-upper for sure. It’s a place you have to commit to, decide to stick with and make better.
In a way, the self-forgiveness part has been easier. When it comes to cities, some flaws are unacceptable; some are not mine to forgive. And yet, after 17 years in Boston, I’ve decided that it’s OK to love this place anyway, even on the days it makes my stomach twist, even as I remain critical of its more serious shortcomings.
Fact: I’ll never be satisfied entirely—not with myself, not with this sentence, not with this place. But here’s another thing I’ve learned: That discontent, that desire to do better, be better, isn’t a problem to be fixed. It’s part of me. Hell, it’s a part of this city, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s a pain-in-the-ass way to be—and I wonder… are people more chill in Hawaii?—but then I remember that the continued push to learn, to strive, to improve is pretty damn admirable too. Best of all, it doesn’t preclude me from loving this moment, from loving Boston, or from calling it home.
Katie Bayerl is a life-long Masshole, one of those people who always thought she’d leave and then… never did. These days, when she isn’t penning stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught creative writing in schools and a variety of community settings. She currently leads the VCFA Young Writers Network and teaches at GrubStreet. Her first novel, A Psalm for Lost Girls, was published by Putnam Books for Young Readers this March. You can find out more about her and her work on her website, her Twitter, or her Instagram.
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